“This Is What Everyone in the World Needs”: Michael “Grizzy Smurf” Monahan on Healing, Resilience, and the Triple Crown

Content Warning: This story contains brief mention of child abuse and neglect.

Michael “Grizzly Smurf” Monahan completed his Triple Crown in 2023, a nearly 8,000-mile hiking feat that fewer than a thousand people have ever managed to achieve.

If you’ve met Grizzly Smurf on trail, you might remember his infectious sense of joy and presence — how he always seems to hike with his eyes and ears wide open, tuned to the natural world around him. That mindfulness was a learned behavior, an intentional act by a man who has spent his life navigating challenges and traumas in his work and personal life.

I caught up with Grizzly Smurf this winter to learn more about his Triple Crown — and how his long career in social work left him uniquely prepared for the rigors and rewards of thru-hiking.

Grizzly Smurf’s personal background led him to a career in Child Protective Services (CPS) and, eventually, psychotherapy. As an infant, he himself was placed in foster care and separated from his sisters. Later, he was transracially adopted as a biracial kid to white parents.

“It is different when you’re adopted,” he told me. “… You’re always looking for something.”

He got older, got his degrees, and started his career as a social worker in Northern Virginia, where he had grown up. He was good at the work — devoted to it.

Grizzly Smurf AT

Growing up, he was always an athlete, but never a Boy Scout. Grizzly Smurf spent some time running around the woods as a kid, but it wasn’t until 2016 or so that he started hiking and getting to know the wilderness better.

One day, he met a woman who was thru-hiking the AT. By then, he’d learned that nature was healing him in ways he’d never before experienced. The thru-hiker was talking about flying over the “roller coaster,” and he wanted to figure out what she meant.

So when bureaucratic complications disrupted his planned career shift out of the family services department and into more mental-health–focused work, he seized his opportunity to find out.

After leaving his position in the middle of February, he started hiking north from Springer Mountain on March 28, 2019. He was going to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.

Grizzly Smurf’s Work

As a CPS investigator and in-home high risk worker, Grizzly Smurf interviewed children and family members, frequently visiting homes, schools, and jails, and attending court hearings.

He often worked intense cases involving severe abuse and neglect. In a span of just three days during his second year on the job, for instance, he had to remove five kids from their homes and responded to two incidents involving a mother’s overdose and a toddler with a fractured skull, respectively.

The job was taxing and often thankless, but his passion for service and personal connection to the work kept him committed. He was well-suited to the role and went on to become a supervisor.

Grizzly Smurf aided a lot of families throughout his career, as complicated and messy as the work could be. He helped keep kids out of foster care and helped others transition safely back into their homes.

At the same time, he was on his own journey of discovery. Even as he spent his days working with children and families in the foster care system, he spent his spare time attempting to reconnect with his own biological mother and sisters, from whom he was separated as a young child. (It wasn’t until a few years ago that they were finally reunited.)

Processing on the AT

The average burnout rate for a CPS Investigator is 18 months. Grizzly Smurf worked in that field for 14 years. During those years, he took on a lot of vicarious trauma from the cases he worked.

He didn’t realize quite the extent of what he had to process until he got away from it all on the AT. As he hiked, he began to heal.

His educational and vocational background make him uniquely qualified to speculate about the specific type of healing that thru-hiking can stimulate. Looking back, he wonders how the trail may have affected his nervous system, his fight-flight-freeze response, or his neuroplasticity.

What’s undeniable is that on the AT, he finally felt free.

Spring came in gradually as he traversed Georgia and picked his way through the Smokies. He witnessed the mountains coming to life. “I was like, ‘oh my God,’ ” he says, “ ’this is what I needed. This is what everybody in the world needs, to see something like this.’ ”

Already cultivating a practice of mindful presence on the trail, he never put in headphones until well after the halfway point, just taking everything in.

The AT was his first love. At the time, he had no idea how many thousands of miles of hiking still lay ahead of him.

Grizzly Smurf AT

Learning To Manage Fear on the CDT

Two years later, Grizzly Smurf found himself trekking into Colorado’s South San Juans on the Continental Divide Trail alongside his friend Kyle “Chimney” Nyoro.

Born and raised on the east coast, he had never climbed in the snow before. This was uncharted territory. There he was, looking 2,000 feet or so down a ridge and contemplating what would happen if he slid. The snow was up to his waist. People had been injured in that exact spot.

He drew on his therapy background during that dicey stretch of the CDT, utilizing dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and mindfulness exercises to slow his breathing, focus on his exhale, and lean into the present. The only thought in his head: there were a lot of people back home that needed him to return safely.

From then on, he enjoyed every step of the trail with a calm and peaceful presence.

His approach to managing fear on the CDT held some similarities to classic exposure therapy.

For instance, in Wyoming, Grizzly Smurf stayed in Rawlins an extra night, scared to head into grizzly country alone. But eventually he forced himself to hike on. By the time he got through Yellowstone, he’d gotten more comfortable with the idea of bears. After that he was gone, off through the Bob and to the border by himself, never faltering again. Not even when he found fresh bear scat 30 or 40 yards from his tent, full of bones and hair.

He would lie in his tent at night, listening to all the life out there. Comfortable and warm in his sleeping bag, he compared the experience to being in a mother’s womb. Even with all the noise of the wildlife at night. “It is dangerous,” he muses about the world outside, “but it’s not.”

Grizzly Smurf CDT

To Triple Crown or Not To Triple Crown

After the AT in 2019 and the CDT in 2021, Grizzly Smurf went to Kilimanjaro and Everest Base Camp. Those were expansive experiences to accompany his two thru-hikes, after which he expected to return to his old life. He wasn’t yet planning to complete the Triple Crown.

Elyse “Chardonnay” Walker became the likely first Black thru-hiker to complete the Triple Crown in 2018. Will “Akuna” followed in her footsteps in 2019 and did so with a real crown on his head, as opposed to the paper Burger King version favored by most Triple Crowners.

Akuna then passed his crown to Grizzly Smurf’s friend Chimney, who went on to claim his own Triple Crown in 2022. Chimney wore it at the PCT’s southern terminus and all through the ensuing celebration into San Diego.

After the CDT, Chimney reached out to Grizzly Smurf asking for his address on the pretext of sending him some T-shirts. But when Grizzly Smurf opened the box, there was the legendary crown atop the clothing. The message was clear.

“Shit, I’m almost in tears with the damn thing,” he remembers. He decided in that moment to pursue his Triple Crown and carry on the legacy established by Chardonnay, Akuna, and Chimney.

READ NEXT – Q&A With Elyse “Chardonnay” Walker

The PCT: “That Was a Hell of a Push”

Grizzly Smurf had felt present on the AT, but as he progressed through the CDT and PCT, he threw himself with renewed fervor into crafting a personal practice of mindfulness. Each section of trail seemed to reveal something new to him. “On the PCT, what I tried to do was turn my brain off… off.” He emphasizes the second “off,” as if saying, “you won’t believe what I found out there.”

By the time he started the PCT in 2023, he was a very experienced hiker — but that didn’t make the last trail of his Triple Crown any easier than the ones that came before.

Starting SOBO on June 16th meant he first had to walk up 10 miles to Hart’s Pass, do 30 more miles just to hit the border, then turn around and walk back. It was already snowing and wet those first 10 or 12 days.

He fell outside Snoqualmie, Washington and sliced open the back of his right leg, two days out from town. He put Betadine on it, pulled it together, tightened it up, and kept hiking.

The fires on the border of California and Oregon tried to stop him, but they didn’t know he was crazy enough to crawl down to the border if needed.

Grizzly Smurf PCT

One memorable episode from the High Sierra perfectly captures Grizzly Smurf’s total commitment to staying present. One day, he got caught in a snowstorm, struggling up and over Mather Pass in waist-deep snow and extreme cold. His state of mind, and an unwillingness to compromise his experience, had brought him there.

He knew he was in danger that day. He even thought he might die. His gloves were no good, but he had no choice but to rely on his hands as he grabbed frozen chunks of ice and snow to haul his way up.

As if in a movie, he sensed movement in the corner of his eye, clapped his trekking poles together, and a wolf wandered into view. They looked at each other. Grizzly Smurf left his phone in his pocket, wanting the moment to remain private, and then the wolf walked off, calm as could be.

Had he turned back that day, maybe his safety would have been guaranteed, but he wouldn’t have had that experience. “Similar to life,” he says, “you still have to be committed to the decision you made until you’re able to make another … You can’t run. You don’t get to run out of something.”

The Finish

All the processing Grizzly Smurf did on the AT prepared him for the many trials he faced on the PCT. It’s where that signature openness and awareness come from. The slow unfolding of all his vicarious trauma, the latent feelings that came alive as he reconnected with his birth family, and all the injustices of life — these things carried him forward into transformation.

The mental resilience asked of thru-hikers becomes part of the mental resilience that the rest of life demands. So Grizzly Smurf, with his 14 years of work at his back, with his emotional presence and mindfulness techniques, was uniquely situated from the moment he started his very first hike to eventually achieve his Triple Crown.

By the time he left the Sierra, he felt the finish line calling. Although he wasn’t getting pressure from work, he knew his patients were waiting for him. When he realized they had turned off the taps on the LA Aqueduct, that was it. He was going to finish.

From Tehachapi, he embarked on a continuous 570-mile push to reach the border. He brought a lot of food, thinking he’d move faster if he didn’t have to resupply, but he soon realized that what he really needed was water. A lot of the caches were dry. He pressed on doggedly nonetheless.

Grizzly Smurf doesn’t remember exactly how many days that final, grueling push took. He isn’t yet sure what physical effects it may have had on him. But he made it to Mexico, his phone too dead to take more than a few seconds of video. “It’s amazing what this human body can do,” he says, “the pure potential of what this mind and this body can do when it’s connected, and when it’s disconnected.”

Grizzly Smurf PCT

Grizzly Smurf’s Best Practices for Mental Resilience on Trail

When you’re on the trail, stuff is likely to come up. Thru-hiking is, for many, an ideal time to process big emotions. Whether you find yourself confronting experiences you’ve had or old wounds or behaviors you’ve inherited from your parents, you need to be prepared to witness those things in some way.

Grizzly Smurf says meditate, don’t ruminate. Be curious about what you should take away from these feelings or memories — don’t just stew in them.

He also provides a mental checklist for hikers to go through if they’re having trouble with high emotion on trail. HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. Are you any of those four things? That could be your issue right there. If you’re struggling, your first step should be to identify and address these immediate concerns.

Post-Trail Adjustment Disorder

Grizzly Smurf has some practices for what the thru-hiking community often calls “post-trail depression.” His revised term, “Adjustment Disorder,” is a diagnosis he’ll often use at work when he wants to probe and explore further with a client. It’s a non-restrictive term that insurance will still cover, in which the client’s body and mind are adjusting to something that happened in the last three months. Coming off trail and having trouble readjusting to society would qualify.

Of course, he also considers each individual’s predispositions when making a diagnosis. You may have “adjustment disorder with depression,” or “with anxiety,” and so on.

READ NEXT – Post-Trail Depression: It’s Not What You Think

As a therapist, he has a different frame of reference for what happens on a thru-hike, but that doesn’t make his own post-trail transitions any easier. Here are the practices he follows when coming home from the trail.

1. Stay physically active: Focus on trying to stay active enough that your body can adapt to being home. This means 15-20 hours a week engaged in physical activity.

2. Reconnect: Make it a priority to reach out to friends and family once you get back. They are such a support along the journey, and it is important to be yourself and share the new you. Also, it’s important to maintain connections with people you met on the trail and join trail support groups/trail angel networks to stay connected.

3. Focus on service: Giving and serving others opens a space of gratitude. This reduces overthinking or longing for the connection that one gets while on trail, which may feel empty once at home

4. Share your trail experiences: Sharing about your hike will help you stay connected to that part of yourself and may motivate others to get outside. Volunteer at a local park, trail, or outdoor entity.

5. Celebrate your progress: Honor your trail experiences by celebrating the strength, resiliency, accomplishment, and stewardship you developed on the trail. This could be in the form of reflective journaling, telling your story, and allowing a narrative to come alive and help with the transition.

A thru-hike is an important story that has a beginning, middle, and end. That story is just as valuable whether you capture it on-trail or after you come home.

6.  Nurture mind, body, and soul: Have compassion. Recognize and get to know the new you. You shouldn’t be the same person you were pre-trail, so this will require curiosity and openness. Practice compassion as you lean into the new you.

7. Slow down: You don’t have to solve everything right away. But also, start to plan the next hike, trip, or adventure so you have something to look forward to.

8. Seek help: Lastly, if you’re having a difficult time adjusting, seek additional support for mental and behavioral health concerns.

Grizzly Smurf Finishing

Changing Perspectives

For his part, Grizzly Smurf feels like a changed man in the aftermath of his Triple Crown. Certainly his fingers paid the price for that day going up Mather in the snow. He drops stuff all the time now. Serious nerve damage isn’t the only thing he got from his thru-hikes, though.

“Now I can sit and look down at a puddle,” he says, “and find beauty in a puddle.” When he notices his negative thought patterns and habits bubbling up, he can put them away much more easily. It feels like he traded a few more years working, putting off retirement, for the mental and emotional growth that most don’t achieve until they’re 65 or 70.

It’s hard for most of us to really comprehend the personal and vicarious trauma that Grizzly Smurf has taken on in his life. The changes that happened in him over his Triple Crown didn’t all take place when he reached his sixth terminus. They came on incrementally, spurred on by every person he met and experience he had.

Grizzly Smurf Finish

There was the first person he met on the AT, in withdrawal from opioids and heroin, who went on to finish the trail and settle in North Carolina. There was the Latino guy who stopped his car for Grizzly Smurf, took him to his house, filled his bottles, and put him right back on trail. As a biracial hiker, he had some tough experiences with race as he hiked, but there was also the white rancher in Montana who shared his lunch with him.

Through his hikes, Grizzly Smurf has paved and widened the path for others to follow. He took risks, embraced fear and anxiety, and continued regardless. Reaching the southern tip of the PCT with Akuna’s crown, he was part of a community reimagining what it’s like to be Black and in nature.

“You only have one life,” says Grizzly Smurf, who has brought his newfound confidence, capability, and leadership back home to his patients and loved ones in Northern Virginia. As he has grown, so have they. “You have to choose which way you do it.”

All photos courtesy of Michael “Grizzly Smurf” Monahan.

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Comments 2

  • Cheese : Feb 19th

    Truly Amazing! I don’t have the “perfect” words. It’s hard to have them when your amazed by something I didn’t think still lived inside me. Anyways! Thank you! To both of you!

  • Reed : Feb 21st

    Mike is a lovely human with an inspiring story. Thank you for sharing. BTW, his trail name is misspelled in the headline.


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